The only thing that narrowly saved “Open Graves” from being a complete disaster was the fact that is was filmed in Spain by a foreign director. It’s long been a mystery to me as to why even “bad” foreign horror movies can still be scary, while the “bad” American horror movies end up just being stupid, almost farcical. I think one of the reasons for this is due to differing approaches to the use of cinematography. In foreign horror films, we often see the grainy auras, the fast blur-like movements, the feeling that what we’re watching is somewhat hazy, like a bad nightmare, giving the movie that element of “spookiness” even when the storyline is badly written. “Open Graves” starring Eliza Dushku certainly imparts that “spooky” aura but it’s still not quite enough to make you forget that the plot that’s evolving throughout is pretty darn ridiculous.
Eliza Dushku is an adequate actress but I don’t think that her “American surfer girl” persona really fit in with this movie. Besides her love interest Jason, played by Mike Vogel, the rest of the cast are either Spanish or European actors that are not recognizable in the US. The fact that these actors are from the area from where the mythical game board originates, adds some validity to the eerie-ness of the movie. Erica (Eliza Dushku ) and Jason however, stand out like sore thumbs…two “white bread” American surf kids surrounded by a group of passionate, mysterious Latin friends who were raised within the culture that created the legend of the cursed game.
It seems comical that Jason would be the one responsible for unleashing the curse of “Mamba” and that he and Erica would be the ones that take initiative to try and thwart the curse when they wouldn’t even be familiar with the creatures referenced in the game. It would have been somewhat more believable if one of their Latin friends wised up rather than being presented as mindless partygoers only interested in alcohol and sex 24/7. Wouldn’t one of them have heard of the legend of the “Mamba” game at some point in their lives, growing up in Spain, and been able to take the reins of controlling the quickly spreading effects of its curse? Of course not, that would make too much sense. We need the aimless American surfer kids to be the smart ones regarding an ancient cursed board game especially since they’re in a foreign country where everyone routinely speaks English. (Huh?)
“Open Graves” was oddly interspersed with bizarre “musical interludes” that made me think someone was paying homage to Europe’s strange obsession with “Baywatch” . There were these seemingly random moments where the camera focused on Eliza Dushku getting ready to surf with the sun shining through her hair and some cheesy rock ballad playing in the background. There scenes were definitely not needed and definitely distracted from the minimal “spooky” aura that the movie was attempting to achieve unsuccessfully.
The concept of a “cursed” board game has potential as a focus for a good horror movie, and it has been done before, but it seems like common sense that the associated “game board” should be suitably scary in and of itself. In “Open Graves”, the “ancient” game board was supposed to have been fabricated centuries ago, out of the skin and bones of an executed witch. However, the game in the movie looked immaculate enough where it could have been just produced by Parker Brothers. The writing on the cards and “board” were very intricate, and as we learn later, were supposed to have been written with the blood of the executed witch. Considering that Erica and Jason learned how to play the game pretty quick without having an ancient voodoo priestess or the like, explain it to them, I guess there also must have been some “blood-written” instruction booklet included with the game that we never saw on screen. Those 17th century religious fanatics were definitely ahead of their time!
The premise of the game was that as the players moved around the spaces on the board, they could land on a space that instructed them to pick a card, and that card would reveal if they were to live (play on) or die (be out of the game). The cards of “death” were inscribed with complex quatrains interspersed with Latin that described how the person was to die. As the player read these poems out loud, I had no idea what they were talking about. Subsequently I did not feel any “impending doom” awaiting their death because I really had no clue as to what their “warning” was. I felt the tension increase among the characters as they read their fate on the card, but I had no idea what it was predicting until after they died and someone explained exactly how the card “foresaw” the specific method of death they had succumbed to.
In general, the special effects were acceptable. They weren’t near as cheesy as your typical American-made Syfy movie fare. The explosions looked real, which leads me to believe that the laws regarding creating random explosions in public in Europe are a bit more lax than they are here. Also some good creepy make-up jobs, ranging from a guy who had his eyes clawed out by some crabs to a girl who ages to her death virtually overnight and explodes in a fountain of blood when docs try to do CPR on her. Even the “Mamba” game itself (a reference to the “Black Mamba” snake, which was one of the few extremely cheesy looking effects in the movie) was crafted superbly, looking like an artisan piece with some great calligraphy and miniature sculptures, despite the fact that it looked like it was made in this decade and not during the Spanish Inquisition.
This brings me to another point that greatly disturbed me – Did anyone else not notice how often the characters placed the game pieces and cards up to their mouths or noses while they were playing the game? Seriously, even if they didn’t know it was supposedly made out of a witch’s skin and blood, they did get it from some creepy no-legged dude who ran a run-down, dark, dirty voodoo shop. I don’t know if I’d have even been touching those game pieces without wearing rubber gloves
The concept for “Open Graves” had potential, but unfortunately the movie couldn’t decide if it wanted to be about an ancient foreign curse or a musical tribute to Eliza Dushku’s bikini bod. If it had stuck to being a movie about a centuries-old, cursed board game discovered by Europeans familiar with its legend, the storyline could have been developed much more effectively. Instead, the unfolding of the story was very disjointed, almost as if the storyline was continually interrupted to explain the presence of the American surf-kids, most notably Eliza Dushku in a bikini. The only thing really scary about this movie was basically the special effects, so I’m giving “Open Graves” 2 cheese wedges for taking itself too seriously to be entertainingly cheesy while at the same time, not taking its storyline seriously enough.